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Mary Stone - Shadow's Loss (Shadow Island FBI Mystery Series Book 14)

A Taste of… Shadow’s Loss

Chapter One

Meg Darby’s heart thrummed with a cocktail of triumph and trepidation as she pulled her SUV into the employee parking lot of Shadow Island’s only school. It was past sunset, but the lot was well lit, and she found a spot strategically chosen for a quick exit—a habit ingrained from years of cautious living.

This was Shadow Island, after all. One couldn’t be too careful.

Tonight was election night, and vehicles had shuffled in and out of the island’s sole polling station at the local school throughout the day. Meg had been proud to witness her fellow residents line up to cast their votes. Now that the time had passed seven, the polls were closed and the lot was mostly empty.

It was over.

Meg still couldn’t believe it. She’d stopped by earlier to cast her own vote, and she’d taken the time to shake hands and thank people for coming out. Her last bit of campaigning must’ve worked, because a news notification on her phone informed her she’d already reached the majority of votes needed.

She, Meg Darby, was Shadow Island’s new chair of the Select Board. And things were going to start changing on day one.

Time to take the trash out.

Her first priority in her new role was simple. She’d make sure the town’s administrative body no longer catered to the revoltingly powerful Yacht Club. That shit had gone on long enough.

They’d made their millions by exploiting and using people, including children. Its members consisted of wealthy families and the kind of people she didn’t want among her neighbors and friends. She’d do everything she legally could to drive them off the island and behind the bars they deserved.

One last piece of business first.

Richmond Vale had called and asked her to come back to the school for a brief meeting. Begrudgingly, the incumbent Select Board chair had admitted his defeat and said he wanted to congratulate her on the victory.

Vale was a prideful man, so she knew he wouldn’t want too many witnesses to his acknowledgment of defeat. Perhaps the realization that she would now be holding a position of power was motivating him to mend broken fences. After all, he always kissed the ass of powerful people and was probably afraid she’d retaliate.

Rightly so.

Vale had spent the last four years doing his best to boss her around, but she’d never taken it personally. As a strong woman serving on the select board while he was the chair, she often stood her ground. Vale’s ego couldn’t take that. He seemed to consider himself superior to everyone except a select few he sucked up to.

Pushing the sleeves of her cardigan up to her elbows, Meg opened the SUV door and climbed out. She always kept a jacket or wrap with her. Tonight, however, the cardigan was more for fashion than warmth.

She patted her hair, a twisted faux-hawk updo, to make sure it was still in place as she passed some poll workers on a break outside the gymnasium. Giving them waves, she was glad to not be alone with Vale.

Inside the large space was a narrow stage along one wall concealed by heavy felt curtains. The metal voting booths had already been disassembled, and workers were still taking down signs and stacking chairs. As Meg scanned the crowd for Vale, she spotted a few unfamiliar faces, but she recognized most of the volunteers and poll workers from around town. And Principal Steve Hill was still there in his role overseeing the election workers.

There was her opponent. He stood in the middle of the cavernous area, tapping his foot the way he always did when he was irritated or wanted to draw attention to himself.

Though Meg lifted her hand, he spotted her and was approaching before she started waving. “Ah, Meg, responding promptly when called as always.” His voice echoed in the mostly empty space, catching everyone’s attention…another one of his tactics. He seemed to have a primal need to be the center of everything.

His dark, slicked-back hair had so much gel in it that it looked plastic. And his overpriced suit, which was somehow meant to impress, clashed with the tacky hairstyle.

Several of Vale’s supporters stood nearby, staring at Meg, some openly smirking in her direction. Shockingly, Vale followed up his greeting by holding out his right hand as he drew closer.

Anyone could have knocked Meg over with a feather or a fart, she was so stunned. Nothing in her long life had prepared her for Richmond Vale, gracious loser.

Gathering herself, she took the last step separating them and held out her hand.

Vale was all smiles as he pressed his left hand on top of hers and leaned in, lowering his voice. “This isn’t over. I don’t give a shit about election results. This island is mine.” His hand tightened on hers. “No one’s taking it away from me.”

Meg blinked a couple of times, then burst out laughing. “Oh, Rich, you don’t have that kind of power. You never did.” She pulled her hand free. Making a moue of distaste, she wiped her palm on the bottom of her cardigan. “I should’ve known you were too small of a man to admit defeat graciously.”

Her reaction to his threat didn’t go unnoticed by his entourage. They shuffled closer, spreading out as they did so, like hyenas circling their prey.

Meg watched them all, taking stock of the situation. Though she recognized a couple of school administrators and a few other staff, many of the other faces in the room were unfamiliar.

Reflexively, she shifted her weight to feel the reassuring pressure of her in-pants holster on her right side.

Her concealed carry weapon wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. This was a school. It was illegal to carry a gun on school grounds in Virginia or at any polling locations, and this was both. She’d left her gun at home, knowing she was coming here earlier to vote and greet voters. And now she was surrounded by antagonistic people.

None of her unease showed in her expression or body language, though. She’d spent most of her life dealing with children or criminals, and she appeared to be surrounded by both at the moment. She knew better than to let them see fear in her eyes.

Squaring her shoulders, Meg finally said what she’d been holding back for years. “Your self-serving reign is over. As soon as I’m sworn in, I’m cleaning up the mess you’ve made on this island. The people have spoken. They don’t want you destroying their lives anymore just to line your pockets and make your Aqua Mafia friends happy.”

Still grinning, Vale rolled back his shoulders but kept his voice low. “I don’t care what the people say they want. I know what keeps this island in money. It’s not from kowtowing to the poor plebs who work and live here. All of them combined don’t make as much money as the poorest Yacht Club member. They don’t make enough in a lifetime to even buy a boat from a Yacht Club member.”

“You arrogant son of a—”

“Money is power.” He snorted, glancing around. “And power is what wins elections. Not votes. Go ahead and head off to your sad little party at the café with West and all your simpleton friends. Enjoy the night. Because I can promise you, the election results you thought meant so much tonight will be useless soon enough. The fact that you’re so ignorant tells me everything I need to know. You shouldn’t, and never will, sit in my office.”

The location of their victory party was no secret, but Vale referencing it carried a tinge of menace that made Meg uncomfortable. How did Vale know that she and Rebecca had planned a celebratory dinner at the Seabreeze Café with her family and the deputies? Not willing to waste another breath on this sea slug in men’s clothing, Meg turned and headed for the exit.

“Okay, now that that’s done, let’s get back to counting all those ballots that are still left,” he blared as she headed to the door. “We’ve got a long night ahead of us still.”

Meg knew he’d said that just to make her worry. But that was because the man was an idiot and didn’t realize that there were state officials watching the ballots, as they had been all day.

He wasn’t going to magically find a box of ballots that hadn’t been counted yet—all with votes for him in it. They’d already tabulated the vast majority, and she’d won. Even if every remaining vote to be recorded was for Vale, she’d still be the winner.

Pushing out the door, Meg casually surveyed the mostly empty parking lot as she headed for her Ford Explorer. She didn’t see anyone around, but her skin prickled as if she were being watched. Still, she needed to show she wasn’t afraid of these people. They were nothing more than bullies.

Of course, if a bully needed to, they usually attacked.

Meg eased into the vehicle and locked the doors, hating that she was breathing heavier than normal. Her sweaty palms gripped the steering wheel as she rolled forward out of the parking spot. The SUV wasn’t as responsive when she braked as she left the school’s parking lot. Out of habit, she looked back to check the rear, thinking perhaps her husband Dale had added some weight to prepare for the rough winters they could get.

Nothing was there.

Richmond Vale stared out a school window at her, waving goodbye before darting for the exit.

“Creepy bastard.”

Continually checking her rearview mirror, she got a chill as Vale’s supporters filed out of the school and headed to their vehicles. Every one of them was focused on her and not hiding it. Their actions appeared coordinated.

Are they going to follow me?

Meg pulled out of the parking lot. Behind her, headlights popped on like torches being wielded by rabble-rousing villagers. She pressed on the gas pedal a little harder.

Though normally a law-abiding woman, Meg wouldn’t let something as frivolous as traffic laws endanger her with a small mob possibly on her tail. Then again, the real threat might be worse. The Yacht Club wasn’t above hiring assassins. Vale and his lackies might not be her primary concern.

She was pissed at herself for getting lured into his damn web.

All the off-duty deputies, along with Rebecca, were at the Seabreeze Café to celebrate the election outcome. Once Meg arrived, she’d be safe in their company. She was probably making too much of it anyway.

As she crested the steepest hill on the island—which wasn’t steep at all—she blew out a long breath. She refused to let Vale taint the moment, this day. She’d won! And he could take a flying leap off the lighthouse, the island’s tallest building.

Smiling, she pressed her foot on the brake. The glint of the stop sign, marking the intersection that led to the bridge, drew nearer in her headlights. She was nearly there. She pressed the brake harder and glanced in her rearview mirror, looking for Vale or his spies. No one followed her.

As she started to sigh in relief, she realized her SUV wasn’t slowing. Instead, the brake pedal dropped straight to the floor, and Meg’s stomach dropped right along with it. With her eyes jerking open wide, she spotted some low-to-the-ground headlights in her periphery on her left.

Not only was her SUV not slowing even a fraction, the speedometer was creeping up fast…

Forty.

Forty-five.

Fifty.

If that car didn’t see her and continued into the intersection, she’d slam into it for sure. Desperate, she tried to swerve away as her left foot searched in vain for the parking brake. The Ford was an older model. The brake should’ve been to the left of the dead pedal, but she wasn’t finding it.

She couldn’t stop the collision, but she did her best to aim away by turning right. But the other car must’ve been going faster than she’d estimated. With both hands maneuvering the SUV to minimize the impact, Meg couldn’t blast the horn. Her headlights filled the other car, reflecting off the white hair of the man who, from the look on his face, noticed the danger—but it was too late to get out of her way.

She’d run a stop sign and was far exceeding the speed limit when her SUV T-boned the much smaller car.

The crash flung Meg forward as her seat belt locked in place. There was a loud crunch of metal against metal, then the sound of glass shattering.

Time seemed to stop.

She could hardly process what was happening. Her forehead struck something hard, and her vision went dark with brilliant sparks of white. Her body felt stiff and heavy.

A moment of terror washed over her as she worried she’d done something to her back and would be paralyzed. Before she could contemplate life supported by a wheelchair, crackling noises erupted. She couldn’t tell if it came from outside the vehicle or from inside her head.

She managed to move her arms, sending up a silent prayer of thanks as they responded. Blinking rapidly, her vision returned, but it was hazy. And a pulsing white noise filled her ears, making them feel clogged, probably from adrenaline.

Carefully twisting her head to the side, she once again prayed she hadn’t hurt her spine. The cross necklace that hung from her rearview mirror reassured her that her Ford was at least upright.

If she was hurt badly, she could only imagine what had happened to the other driver. He was in a vehicle half the size of hers. She needed to get help. Fishing her phone out of her pants pocket, she dialed 911. It started ringing as she hit speaker.

“Hello? This is nine-one-one. What’s your emergency? Hello?” Melody’s voice was tinged with concern.

With an effort, Meg found her words. “Intersection of Coastal Drive and Ocean Boulevard.” Moving her lips was getting harder with every syllable she pushed out. “Two-car wreck, at least two injured. Need medical.”

“Meg? Is that you?” Her longtime friend must’ve recognized her phone number, as her voice sounded so strange, even to her own ears.

Meg’s fingers started to tingle, and that was when she knew they were going numb. Something warm trailed down the side of her forehead. Blood. “Yes. Help me. Please.”

Melody said something, but the words faded as the phone slipped out of Meg’s hand and the world faded away.

Chapter Two

“Viviane!”

The urgency in Sheriff Rebecca West’s voice sliced through the cacophony of the Seabreeze Café’s outdoor patio. Music and laughter swirled around her, but Rebecca’s focus was laser-sharp on her friend. The phone in her grip seemed like a lifeline and a harbinger of doom all at once.

This can’t be happening.

Just moments before, Rebecca had been basking in the revelry of her friends and family who were, in her mind, prematurely celebrating her new official title as the sheriff of their quaint island community. But now the weight of that role crashed upon her with brutal urgency.

Because Meg Darby—her friend, Viviane’s mother, and the presumed new chair of the Select Board—had been involved in a horrific car accident.

Viviane spun around, smiling her biggest smile with brightly painted lips. “What, Madame Sheriff, do you…” The words trailed off as her face morphed into a canvas of worry and confusion.

Rebecca’s heart clenched at the sight, knowing the bond between Viviane and her mother. Knowing, too, the responsibility that Viviane shouldered as her deputy and confidante.

Rebecca rushed her way. “Go get your dad. Now. Meg’s been in an accident. The ambulance is on its way, but we’re closer.”

Everyone in their vicinity froze.

Margaret “Meg” Darby—the retired dispatcher her team had worked with for years, the woman who volunteered for everything, the caring soul who stepped in as an unofficial victim advocate when the town needed someone, the rock that everyone turned to when there was a disaster—was hurt and in need of help.

For a moment, all conversation stopped. Then a flurry of activity ensued. Betty, the owner, whirled around and flung the door open, her voice rising easily over the din of the crowd. “Dale!”

Meg’s husband started to stand as Viviane broke into a flurry of movement. “Daddy! It’s Mama!”

Chaos ensued as everyone tried to clear a path as Dale ran for his daughter through the crowd.

Sirens reached earshot, growing nearer, signaling that a rescue crew was already responding.

Racing for her cruiser, Rebecca shouted over her shoulder. “She’s at the bridge intersection.” Her vehicle was parallel parked at the end of a row of cars in the opposite direction from where she needed to go. By the time she reached it at a full sprint, a second cruiser with lights flashing had already zipped past her. Deputies Trent Locke and Jake Coffey had been parked closer to the café and would beat her there.

As Rebecca jumped into the driver’s seat, Viviane yanked on the locked passenger door handle, startling Rebecca.

“I’m coming with you!”

Rebecca unlocked the door as she started the engine and turned on the siren and lights.

Viviane yanked the door open and jumped in. “Go! Go!”

Throwing the SUV into gear, Rebecca spun it around to head toward the bridge and floored the gas as Viviane pulled on her seat belt.

“Mama texted me a bit ago that she was swinging by the school. That must’ve been where she was coming from.”

Keeping her eyes on the road in front of her, Rebecca passed the front door of Seabreeze Café as Hoyt and Dale came rushing out, beelining for Hoyt’s personal truck. Greg Abner was right behind them.

They’d have to catch up. Rebecca drifted around the corner, turning onto Coastal Drive. Immediately, they saw the wreck, lit up by the flashing lights of Trent and Jake’s SUV just a block away. Flares illuminated the scene to warn other drivers.

Hitting the brakes, she slid the rear end of the SUV around, creating a barrier with the vehicle so no one else could accidentally add to the wreck. The first vehicle, a blue BMW sedan, was bent nearly in half, folded around the front of Meg’s Ford Explorer.

Unlike Rebecca’s department-issue SUV, Meg’s vehicle sat higher off the road and didn’t have the push bars on the front that protected the grill and acted as an additional bumper. As mangled as Meg’s Explorer was, she must have been moving fast when they crashed.

Information flooded Rebecca’s mind as she assessed the scene. Trent was holding a deflated side airbag out of the way while fiddling with something in the driver’s door of the BMW.

Viviane bailed out of the cruiser before it stopped rocking, hitting the road at a run straight to her mother’s vehicle. “Mama!”

“She’s alive!” Jake’s voice reached them from the far side of Meg’s Explorer as Rebecca ran up to join them.

“What about this one?” Rebecca gestured to the car.

Having placed a neck brace on the man to prevent further injury, Trent maneuvered the driver onto the ground next to the crumpled BMW. “Not sure. Beginning CPR now.”

Rebecca moved toward Meg but noticed the telltale bounce of chest compressions in her periphery. A sharp pang stabbed through her own chest as she dodged around the rear of the BMW. She flagged down Hoyt, who was running up, and directed him to assist Trent with CPR.

As she took in the scene at the intersection, it was clear from the layout that Meg had blown through the stop sign, striking the other car. The entire front of Meg’s Ford was crumpled, the windshield shattered, the safety glass scattered along the road. Footing was tricky. The safety glass had done its job, breaking into small pieces with no jagged edges, but the coating on the glass always caused the piles to shift and slide underfoot.

“Mama, can you hear me?”

Viviane’s back blocked the view into the cab until Rebecca moved up beside her, standing in the open driver door.

Meg lay slumped forward, her upper body supported by the shoulder strap of the seat belt. Blood was smeared on the left side of her face and matted into her hair. Lines of blood trickled down her face, and a bloodied cell phone rested on the floorboard. Shattered glass sparkled like rhinestones in Meg’s updo.

Jake was kneeling in the passenger seat, carefully holding her head with gloved hands. “Airway appears clear. She’s breathing. There’s a long and deep laceration on her head. Either of you got—”

Rebecca noticed how tightly Viviane was gripping her mother’s sleeve. She needed to give her something to do to pull her out of this blind panic. “Viviane, go get the first aid kit. Hurry.”

Viviane shook her head. “I can’t leave her.”

Rebecca positioned herself so her deputy would see her while she spoke. “Your dad’s pulling up now. Go ask him about any medications Meg might be on and bring back the kit.” Prying Viviane’s hands loose, she gently pressed her aside.

The sad fact was, Viviane couldn’t be at the center of anything that might be part of the case later.

“But—”

“Run!”

Viviane still tried to fight, twisting her hands out of Rebecca’s, until her father’s voice bellowed over all the noise. “Meg? Viviane?”

At her father’s despair-filled cry, Viviane turned and ran. Lights popped on and then zeroed in on the wreck. Rebecca briefly turned to see Deputy Greg Abner directing searchlights toward them.

Rebecca stepped onto the running board, ducking into the cab with Jake. He lifted his gaze, staring directly at her. “Viviane can’t be here.”

“I know. But I had to get her to let go without jostling Meg. I couldn’t just push her aside.”

Viviane’s presence would create a conflict of interest and not only affect Viviane, but her mother, the department, and even the commonwealth’s attorney if charges were filed for the death or injuries of the other driver. “She wasn’t going to leave on her own, and Greg’s back there. He can talk sense into her better than I can right now.”

The skitter of shifting glass made Rebecca turn her head. Through the shattered door window, she saw Greg running over, carrying a first aid kit.

“Dale’s holding Vi back. He gave me a rundown of her medications. There’s nothing that should interfere with her care, but I’ll give the list to the EMTs when they get here. Do you have enough light? Where do you need me?”

“Lighting’s good enough. Take the kit to Jake on the passenger side.” Rebecca shifted so she was firmly inside the driver’s side door.

Greg appeared on the other side of the Ford. “What do you need?”

“Gauze. Lots of gauze. We have to control the bleeding.” Jake spoke over his shoulder while remaining motionless in place.

“Are you bracing her head?” Greg’s voice was muffled as he passed over an entire roll of gauze.

“I am. I didn’t want it to move if someone bumped her or the SUV.” Jake flattened the roll and pressed it against the wound. The fabric immediately turned bright red. “I need more. She’s bleeding fast.”

Two fire trucks moved into the congested intersection, their lights and sirens bouncing off the nearby buildings. Several firefighters jumped off the trucks and began hooking up hoses.

Rebecca peeked through the windshield as another set of red lights shined around them.

Ambulances pulled in. At this time of night, with no traffic to contend with on the bridge, their sirens were off. Rebecca gently grasped Meg’s wrist and checked for a pulse. She held her breath when she didn’t feel one at first.

No. There has to be a pulse. Jake said she was breathing.

The tiniest bump tapped against her fingers, and she exhaled a sigh of relief. “How bad is the head wound?”

Greg passed up two more rolls of gauze.

Jake shot her a sharp look once he had the extra rolls in place. “I’m not going to pull the gauze up to check. The bleeding’s just now slowing. But not good.” His eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Her pulse is slow and weak.”

“That tracks.” Jake’s voice was grim.

Their radios crackled to life with Hoyt’s voice. “Two sets of medics incoming.”

The warning came only a few moments before the sound of more boots on glass. The first pair of EMTs raced to take over CPR for Trent. A second duo split up as they arrived at Meg’s Explorer, one taking each side of their patient.

As a man she didn’t recognize stepped up by her side, Rebecca ducked out of the way. Jake took a bit longer, holding Meg’s head steady while the EMTs worked around him to secure a neck brace.

Rebecca stared at Meg’s unresponsive body as the EMTs immobilized her, braced her, and slid her out of the seat and onto a waiting gurney. The woman she’d grown so close to, looked up to, and relied on, who’d treated her like family, was loaded into the back of the ambulance.

Leaving Rebecca to wonder if she’d ever see Meg alive again.

The path to power is paved with blood. 

In the wake of a landmark election on Shadow Island, the tide of power is set to turn. Newly elected Sheriff Rebecca West stands ready to dismantle the Yacht Club’s ruthless grip over the island. And she isn’t alone. She has her team as well as the newly elected chair of the Select Board by her side.

But victory comes at a perilous cost.

The ballots have barely been counted when tragedy strikes. The new Select Board Chair’s life hangs by a thread after a deliberate sabotage turns her victory drive into a fight for survival. Read More